In 2011 I learned that a new managed hosting company – WP Engine – had just raised $1.2 Million from some very high profile investors including Eric Ries. At the time what really caught my attention was that one of the investors was Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com.
That piqued my curiosity and I looked into them. Months later, after reading a bunch of good reviews about them, I switched our highest traffic site to them and have been really impressed with how well they’ve worked out. Ive been recommending WP Engine ever since.
In January of this year, I had a chance to meet and spend some time with Austin Gunter and Ben Metcalfe while we were all in Las Vegas for ASW13. I’ve been curious about what really makes WP Engine run as well as it does – especially considering the insane growth and scaling issues that they’ve had to deal with (and overcome) – I thought it’d be a cool to interview Austin about some of the more interesting aspects of what makes WP Engine run on all cylinders…
1. Max: So we’ve heard again and again how much you guys at WP Engine are obsessed with speed + performance + security. What does WP Engine do that no other host does when it comes to going above and beyond to optimize website performance? Feel free to get technical (& all nerdy) on me here.
Austin: The trick to understanding speed is to understand that what may be “fast” at normal levels of traffic, isn’t always fast at scale. When Ben Metcalfe and Jason Cohen developed the technology for WP Engine, they had to look not just what would happen when WordPress sites were getting thousands of hits a day, but thousands of hits an hour, and thousands of hits a minute. Statistically speaking, when you have thousands of hits a day, there is that occurrence that happens .1% of the time that you can basically ignore. But when you have thousands of visitors a minute, all of a sudden, those .1% occurances get downright common and you have to take them into account when developing the technology.
For example, there’s Apache server technology is totally serviceable for everyday hosting situations. I could stick a single WordPress site on Apache and be able to handle a few thousand visitors each day because Apache can run a decent amount of concurrent requests of the same site content. I could do a lot of things to optimize my site that would stretch the performance of Apache, but there will always be a bottleneck with Apache. Apache will eventually run out of threads to serve requests, and crash under a certain level of traffic. At which point, you have to start looking for new solutions to scale that site speed.
That’s why you need to use something like Nginx, which is capable of serving hundreds of simultaneous requests of the same WordPress content at the same time. I wrote about how nginx and apache are different on WP Force. Basically, Nginx was developed to solve the C10k problem, or the “10,000 concurrent connections” problem. WordPress is seeing production usage where content will make the front page of Reddit or The Huffington Post and receive that many visitors in a short period of time, so WP Engine, from its inception, was tasked with solving this hosting challenge. We knew that we were going to have the opportunity to host some of the most popular, and premiere WordPress installations on the internet, so we had to make sure our technology could stand up to their traffic levels.
(NOTE: It’s important to say that I’m speaking in very general terms to establish a technological foundation. A lot of what WP Engine does on the technology side is kept secret, and I’ve intentionally left out some of those technical bits. Sorry ;-))
Part of the way WP Engine can scale to the incredible levels that we have with a number of our clients, is our product “Evercache.” It’s our secret sauce that takes advantage of the latest server technology, and adds multiple caching layers in the hosting stack so that WP Engine’s ability to cache is not limited at the plugin level. You might say at WP Engine, “it’s caching all the way down.” And of course, we added a hand-tuned CDN to reduce latency, and make sure that your content is scalable from anywhere on the globe.
When it comes to security, many of those things are also shrouded in mystery because the best security is redundant and inventive. Since hackers are a smart bunch, we have to keep every possible advantage to ourselves as we make sure we always stay a few steps ahead of them. Part of what we’ve done on the security side is make sure that, as a company, WP Engine is financially incentivized to keep your WordPress site secure. We guarantee your site security, and if something should go wrong, we take care of the costs associated with the cleanup.
We take that guarantee seriously, and are the only host which offers it. The guarantee means you can’t FTP or SSH into your server at WP Engine, because that would put your site at unnecessary risk. For more security, and if you ask nicely, we can even lock down your ability to write to the filesystem, except during development windows. Most of our enterprise and agency customers opt for this because it means there is zero opportunity to inject malicious code into your site most of the time.
2. Max: What’s do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they weigh hosts and then pick a provider? What hard statistic can you point to that makes this so?
In the past, price has been the biggest factor hosting companies have used to differentiate themselves from one another. And with the price of technology always dropping, it makes sense that the same hosting from 5 years ago should be dirt cheap for you to get your hands on, and that holds true.
You CAN get obsolete shared hosting from any number of companies for less than $10 every month. That’s an incredibly cheap price, and you get exactly what you pay for!
If you think about the cost of an hour of a single support tech’s time, you’re not even covering it with a sub-$10 monthly fee. And we haven’t even started talking about server technology or developer features for a WordPress platform. If you do simple math, you realize that a hosting company that undercharges for their hosting will have to make their money in volume, which means they have to fit as many customers as possible onto a server, and then cut corners on support.
I’m not sure there’s a hard statistic with this to point to, other than the size of The Endurance Group, which is a holding company that owns dozens of well-known hosting companies. The Endurance group is a billion-dollar company that competes with GoDaddy for its customers, and for level of service as well.
Price of hosting should actually be an indicator of the quality of technology, and the quality of customer experience and technical support is. A more expensive host can afford to hire WordPress support specialists who can spend time with each support issue. And a more expensive host can invest in developer tools and features that improve your customer experience. So with that in mind, I’d look for what real customers are actually saying about a hosting company on Twitter or on their blogs. People share and write about their experiences with companies on social media, so you can spend an hour researching a hosting company to find out everything you need to know, good and bad.
Frankly, there are so many people making money with WordPress, that the savvy developers, designers, and “consultants” aren’t concerned about saving money on hosting, they’re looking for the host that can make more money for them, either because of tools that save them time, or faster page load speed, or support that they can rely on, rather than have to do everything themselves.
3. Max: Thanks for answering my questions in such detail. I definitely have some new perspectives that I never even thought about before. To round this out and to end on a lighter and less-nerdy note: Given your leadership role with WP Engine – what other companies do you admire or try to model WP Engine after? Which CEO(s) and why?
I love the way that the teams at Buffer and SEOmoz have built their content blogs. They post tons of valuable content that is congruent with the vision and purpose of their companies, but isn’t just about marketing their product. Rather, they do their users a SECOND service by providing them with interesting, informative, and useful content on a consistent basis. A great content blog is a great way to develop customer trust, and it also does increase inbound traffic, but in an organic, “win-win” manner.
I love how Sarah Lacy is running PandoDaily, with a focus on the long-term game of producing long-form journalistic pieces in blog format, and she is railing against the way that many publishers (I won’t name names, but there’s a big site that rhymes with MechGrunch) are trying to squeeze content producers and site designs to optimize for pageviews, at the cost of ruining long-form content. I think Sarah is a great example of “fighting the good fight” in her industry, but also running a successful business. I hope that WP Engine is “fighting the good fight” in a similar way. Sarah sets a high bar for quality for her writers and herself, which challenges other content sites to up their game as well. At the end of the day, I look up to entrepreneurs who focus on “quality over quantity,” and am grateful to work for a company that does that very thing.
Max: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. If anyone wants to check out Austin’s blog check it here or follow him on Twitter – or if you want to see for yourself how much faster your site would be on WP Engine run your URL through their free site speed test or check out their hosting plans.